Rational Choice, Context Dependence, and the Value of Information in European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris)

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Science  18 Nov 2011:
Vol. 334, Issue 6058, pp. 1000-1002
DOI: 10.1126/science.1209626

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When Is Less More?

Sometimes too much information can hamper our decision-making ability, resulting in our making suboptimal choices. Freidin and Kacelnik (p. 1000; see the Perspective by Giraldeau) explored this “less is more” effect in starlings and confirmed that contextual information hampered the ability of the animals to choose the “best” food item. This was true, however, only when the birds were presented with multiple choices simultaneously. In contrast, when the birds were presented with a sequence of prey choices, knowing the context of the find improved their ability to make the optimal choice. In nature, starlings forage for invertebrates and are unlikely to encounter many prey items simultaneously. Thus, decision-making has evolved to favor using contextual information to make choices, despite the fact that it fails when choices are simultaneous.


Both human and nonhuman decision-makers can deviate from optimal choice by making context-dependent choices. Because ignoring context information can be beneficial, this is called a “less-is-more effect.” The fact that organisms are so sensitive to the context is thus paradoxical and calls for the inclusion of an ecological perspective. In an experiment with starlings, adding cues that identified the context impaired performance in simultaneous prey choices but improved it in sequential prey encounters, in which subjects could reject opportunities in order to search instead in the background. Because sequential prey encounters are likely to be more frequent in nature, storing and using contextual information appears to be ecologically rational on balance by conditioning acceptance of each opportunity to the relative richness of the background, even if this causes context-dependent suboptimal preferences in (less-frequent) simultaneous choices. In ecologically relevant scenarios, more information seems to be more.

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